What began as a simple homestead and pastor’s retreat in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, run by Ruth Pepler and her daughter Grace and supported by her husband Thomas, has grown into a unique farm stay business. Ruth’s deep dedication to her family and passion for agritourism was evident as she told me the story of their farm.

The family moved New Jersey to Arkansas in 2007 for Thomas’ work. They purchased 82 wooded and hilly acres, and Grace became active in a homeschool 4-H group. The farm began to take on a life of its own as she grew her herd of goats, cows, and other animals.

The farm is now home to four generations of Grace’s Jersey cows, used for milk and meat. Their 16 dairy goats used to be milked and shown by Grace, but now they are enjoyed by the farm stay guests and keep all the underbrush on the property clear and ideal for hiking. They also have a standard donkey and a miniature donkey, two fiber sheep, chickens for eggs and keeping the fly population down, and ducks and geese to keep the orchard grass trimmed. Their seven Great Pyrenees dogs protect the farm animals from a thick coyote population.

When they decided to open their property to the public, many of their guests were in the area to float the nearby Buffalo National River. When a couple of dry summers caused the tourism in the area to decrease, Ruth thought, “this isn’t going to work, we can’t have our business based on the river.” Around the same time that she was pondering the future of their short-term rentals, some guests came down to the farm where Ruth was milking a cow and asked if they could milk. “I had the cow tied to a post on the side of the hill and said, ‘nah, I’m not sure about that,” laughed Ruth, but it sparked an idea for her. She started researching farm stays, joined Farm Stay USA, and talked with founder Scottie Jones about how to get started.
Now, they are renting out a guest house, vintage bus, hilltop stone cottage, and cabin to folks who are primarily interested in experiencing life on the farm. “People are searching online ‘stay on a farm,’” Ruth explained, “and we come up or Farm Stay USA comes up. They like the fact we are a homestead farm and there are so many different aspects of it to offer, they can milk and collect eggs and play with the goats. We can take them in the high tunnel, and they can help us plant something or pick something, we show them how to use the different herbs in things, we offer cooking classes, make our own pasta. I think that wide variety is what is drawing them here, but a lot of it truly is the farm.”
The pandemic has changed a lot in our lives, and farm stays have stepped up to offer safe, outdoor experiences. “I think COVID really blew the lid off of wanting to know where your food comes from and how to grow some of your own,” Ruth said. “People also just want to get away from technology, they’ve had enough of that, even before COVID. We intentionally do not have internet, Wi-Fi, or cable TV in the guest house. People walk in, and their kids are like, ‘oh my iPad doesn’t work!’” She laughed. “We have a big square table that is perfect for playing games, you know, so the families can all sit around here and it’s set up nicely to do that. To just unplug and reconnect with your family is something we really try to emphasize while they are here. Slow down a little.”
Their guests are diverse: from ladies retreats to grandparents traveling with their kids and grandkids. “They fly in from California, New Jersey, to come to Arkansas because they find the farm. A lot of them want to know more about where their food comes from, many of them are from the city. Some of them are wanting to start their own farm and they want to try it out and get some tips and pointers.”
The farm stay has been structured to provide an exclusive experience for guests. Those staying in the main guest house get to spend the morning with Grace in the barnyard while Ruth prepares breakfast. They tailor this morning experience to the family.  “They are getting our undivided attention, we are their private chef, their tour guide through the farm. It really is a different atmosphere than having a whole group of people around who don’t know each other,” said Ruth, adding that when the group is more intimate, people are more likely to try new things.

Once they have enjoyed the farm, they head up to the barn loft where breakfast is served by Ruth from a certified kitchen which is dedicated gluten free. The barn loft, with its living/dining area and large kitchen, has been created for guests to enjoy full farm breakfasts and private dinners, and has a cozy family atmosphere. “If the guests have got little kids, they are playing in the loft of the barn with blocks while mom and dad are finishing their dinner – okay! You can’t get this in a restaurant” Ruth laughed. “Grace and I have taken our share of turns rocking babies so moms can eat.”

Adding the meals to the farm stay was a natural extension for the family. Ruth loves to cook and has experience catering and working in restaurants and as a private chef. As they looked for ways to increase revenue on the farm, they landed on the idea of creating a store featuring farm fresh, healthy food. They built a store onto the side of the barn with an ordering page on their website where they provide a diverse menu of prepared food. Because of their location near the Buffalo National River and their niche market of a gluten free bakery, they are focusing on providing food to-go for folks spending the weekend camping nearby. “We have things that people can take to their campsite or their cabin and cook. We were trying to think of the most versatile packaging that is also sustainable, all of our to-go packaging is compostable or reusable. We did lasagnas in an 8”x8” aluminum pan that fits in a 10” skillet on a campfire or you can put it in an oven or take it out and microwave,” said Ruth.
As Ruth ventured into the agritourism industry and began looking for resources, she was surprised to find that there wasn’t much. She found a few local farmers who were interested, founded the Arkansas Agritourism Association in 2018, and served as president for three years. Ruth described the growth of the association as a “very slow crawl,” but firmly believes that this industry will only grow. “I’ve been telling everybody, now is the time, we need to be really visible because now more people are starting to hear about agritourism.”
In her work to promote agritourism, Ruth has recently become involved with USAID serving as an agritourism development expert in Guyana for a program called Farmer-To-Farmer. They work with an indigenous community that grows sugar cane and tropical fruit to help increase profits, and Ruth has helped brainstorm with them how to incorporate agritourism.

Building community can be challenging, and I wondered how Ruth and her family have coped with the isolation that can impact farmers even more tangibly than it does suburbanites. She said that moving to a rural area in a new state was a huge transition. It has taken them a long time to build community and they have learned to be very intentional about it. They host a community potluck once a month, inviting local farmers who may not have family nearby or have moved in from out of state. “They like that, they all need the same thing, they all need that connection. That’s been a super important thing for us,” she said. They also host potluck dinners on Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving, where “everybody brings something, and that way they have those holidays with people that they know and they spend them with every year, so that’s kind of neat.”

With so much important work on her plate, I asked Ruth how she copes with stress and burnout. She emphasized communication within the family as vital to getting through difficult times. While her and Grace’s job is physically strenuous, Thomas is handling emotionally and mentally draining work every day on his off-farm job as director of Hospice and Home Care. It’s important to be cognizant of the stress each person is under. “You have to make sure everyone’s needs are getting met in the way that they need them met, not in the way that you think it needs to happen. And make sure that you are taking care of each other. Even though it is really hard and there is no magic wand on some of these things, make sure you’re all connecting and being there for each other the way you need. Super important.”
She added that the financial strain is real and “we are always trying to figure out how to cut costs and increase revenue, it’s the same old same old,” said Ruth, “but in the end, I enjoy what I’m doing. I like having time that I can just go wander in the pasture with the cows and things like that. It’s not something you need to be doing if you don’t really love it.”
Thank you to the Pepler family for doing what you love, creating a warm environment of hospitality for people to experience farm life, and promoting agritourism!


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